We awake in an upended age. Past gains are at risk. Greedy men appeal to the worst in people. Members of the long-dominant racial group, feeling under threat as their numbers wane, aggressively move to lock in their power at others’ expense. Crude demagoguery wins the day, hate crimes spike, and members of Congress respond to a narrowly averted massacre by insisting on more and more guns. America teeters on an abyss.
The values we were raised to uphold, like faithfulness and compassion, and constitutional principles like due process and equal protection, are not self-implementing. They live or die by how we govern ourselves. Experience teaches that if we seek justice, we must act with justice. Yet we can barely talk to one another, barely see one another.
Last week saw the release of the police dash cam video of the 2016 murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota, as well as a video of Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter in the back of a police cruiser shortly after Castile was shot in front of them. The girl comforted her mother and urged her to be calm because “I don’t want you to get shooted.” The videos are almost too much to bear. Their release followed the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile seven times during a traffic stop. His family received a $3M settlement.
These incidents betray our values. An assumption of black criminality too often undergirds them. We must confront this, build on reform efforts, and ensure better police training in de-escalation methods. When we fall into the trap of reducing community-police relations to a zero-sum game of “us vs. them,” we all lose. When our outrage prompts broad-brush responses like barring police from Pride parades, we fall into the pit of responding to dehumanization of victims by dehumanizing police. Dale Carpenter refers to this as “single-entry moral bookkeeping, where only one side of the ledger counts.”
Dogma, whether from right or left, blinds us to the nuance that fills our daily lives. Messy details get in the way of simple solutions; but when we force a comforting narrative upon the events in front of us, we falsify. It is pernicious whether in juries or activists. We cannot resolve a problem we fail to see clearly. And we cannot work with people we are busy demonizing.
We do not undercut justice but advance it when we recognize that some police use techniques that minimize deadly shootings, or when we recognize that some members of privileged groups have long worked for justice for those marginalized by race or gender. We have to look for the people behind the categories. As Fred Rogers put it, we have to look for the helpers.
Like you, I am not generic. I am a particular person who has made a particular journey. I will not be pigeonholed. Please extend to me the same honest gaze that you demand for yourself.
President Obama last week pointed to foundational values in criticizing the Senate healthcare bill: “[T]his debate has always been about something bigger than politics. It’s about the character of our country—who we are, and who we aspire to be.”
Whether we are addressing problems in policing or healthcare or corporate and environmental abuses, we must appeal to shared values—the same values that inspired generations of African Americans to pass down the artifacts now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Those are sacred objects preserved in a heroic mass struggle against erasure. As then, so now. Our actions must honor the predecessors who bequeathed us freedom.
Special Agent Crystal Griner, a married black lesbian, was one of the Capitol Police officers who saved Rep. Steve Scalise and other Republican Congress members and staffers on June 14 by taking down shooter James Hodgkinson. Will Scalise be moved to re-examine his racist and homophobic past? Will his supporters use this teachable moment to learn and grow?
Reach across the chasm of difference and look your neighbor in the eye. The flame of recognition may not bridge the gap, but it never will without effort. Our republic is at stake. We must take the leap.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2017 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.